Public sector workplaces will be very different post-COVID-19. But digital transformation can help central and local government bodies meet the employee and service user expectations of tomorrow, according to Dips Dhillon, SAP Concur Central Government Business Leader, and David Hipwell, Local Government Business Leader for the UK & Ireland.
As lockdown restrictions begin to ease across the UK, central and local government bodies – like all organisations – will be turning their attention to what the new world of work might look like, and how employees’ new workplace expectations will impact their priorities for the coming 12 months.
It is with this challenge in mind that we recently surveyed 233 public sector finance leaders and decision-makers on what they perceive to be the future priorities facing government, particularly in the context of work, travel and expenses. What will work look like in the future? And, crucially, how will they need to adapt? Are budgets for remote digital transformation and travel changing in 2021, for example? And how will they manage the digital skills gap, productivity, workload, office space and collaboration?
What we found is that the public sector of the future will look very different to how it did pre COVID-19.
Changing world of work
Very nearly half (49%) of government decision-makers told us they expect to return to normal delivery of services within the next 12 months, while 80% expect that to happen within the next two years.
However, they will need to manage that return to frontline service provision with a workforce that expects to work in very different ways. Flexible working is here to stay, for example. The vast majority (91%) of government decision-makers expect flexible home/office set ups to be a permanent feature post-pandemic.
And, while 94% of UK government decision-makers agree that working from home will become an expected norm, three quarters say it will be the employee’s choice – creating further complexity around managing work, and a need to support employees in a more blended or hybrid working environment.
We were encouraged to hear that the majority (70%) of those surveyed feel many of the necessary digital tools, processes and systems are already in place. However, many agreed there is still room for improvement, with key areas for development being more reliable and compatible infrastructure and tools, better IT support services and improved connectivity and broadband capacity. Meanwhile, many business processes, such as travel and expenses, will need to updated to support new ways of working.
Financing the future
The good news for local and central government budget holders and finance teams is that that they are already digitally transforming – and financial support is already in place to help them along the journey.
Almost half of government decision-makers (48%) said their budgets for digital initiatives increased in 2021 compared with last year.
A high proportion (78%) of government decision-makers have also seen an increase in ‘use of cloud-based technologies’ within their organisations. In fact, 58% of government decision-makers’ organisations have already implemented cloud-based technologies – while a further 15% intend to do so in the future.
Travel and expense challenges
One area that will clearly benefit from digital transformation is travel and expense management.
For many government departments, expense management still involves outdated paper-based processes that are time consuming for employees, lack clear visibility of spend, and are often non-compliant.
Due to pandemic-induced travel restrictions, it is not surprising that 76% of all government decision-makers stated that travel and expense budgets had decreased in 2021 compared with the previous year.
Looking forward, however, optimism abounds that travel will return, even if not quite to pre-pandemic levels and even if the return will initially start ‘low-frequency’.
With that in mind, many decision-makers told us they feel now is the right time to explore the digital transformation of travel and expenses management – with three key areas of focus front of mind:
- Processes – improving and simplifying the overall processes to create greater efficiencies and reduce costs.
- People – Improving the employee experience by simplifying and speeding up tedious processes with the right tools and the right training.
- Data and tech – Introducing the right systems to deliver expenses and travel policies in a secure and compliant way.
While the challenges of the past year have put huge pressure on public sector budget holders, COVID-19 has also been the catalyst for digital transformation. And it’s clear that, for many, a continued focus on automating processes to create a more efficient organisation and support staff in their return to work is creating create further opportunity to redirect resources to other frontline services.
Such an approach might just provide the public sector with a roadmap to achieving their priorities for the new world.